An occasional reader of this blog, a neighbor who grew up in El Paso, alerted me to a curious bit of trivia about that city in far West Texas: Alligators once lived in a pond in the central plaza.
The route of our cross-country bicycle trip will take us through El Paso. We’re scheduled to arrive there on Oct. 9, after a 45-mile ride from Las Cruces, N.M., and spend a layover rest day there on Oct. 10, my neighbor’s birthday.
How the alligators got to El Paso is a subject of debate in local lore.
“One story claims that the alligators were sent to a local miner from a friend in Louisiana as a joke,” says the Web site Borderlands, a local history project of El Paso Community College. “The miner then presented the alligators to Mayor C.R. Morehead, who had them placed in the park pond.”
Another story, according to the Web site, claims that J. Fisher Satterwaite, El Paso parks and streets commissioner in the 1880s, “brought the reptiles to El Paso in a box and kept them in a barrel of water at a local saloon until a pond could be built around the fountain in the Plaza.
“Regardless of how they came to reside in San Jacinto Plaza, the alligators were the central attraction,” the Web site says. “At one time the pond contained as many as seven of the reptiles. Most visitors just rested on the wall surrounding the pond and watched the alligators.
“Others actually had firsthand encounters with the reptiles. In 1952, an alligator named Oscar was hauled to Texas Western College and, as a prank, placed inside a professor’s office. Another time an alligator was found in the swimming pool at the college right before an intramural swim meet.”
Alligators lived in San Jacinto Plaza — known in Spanish as La Plaza de los Largartos (alligators) — from 1883 to 1965, when the surviving reptiles were moved to the El Paso Zoo because of cruelty to the critters. Two were stoned to death and another had a spike driven through its left eye. “The alligators were returned to the plaza in 1972 for two years only to be removed once more because of vandals,” says the Borderlands Web site.
Another Web site, Roadside America.com, says: “In the old days, people weren’t sure if alligators could the survive the chilly winter nights, so humane (and probably drunk) gentlemen would snatch the gators from the pond at the park, wrap them in coffee sacks, and haul them back to the saloon. There, the grateful critters enjoyed a cozy night behind the potbelly stove. In the morning, the gentlemen would return the alligators to the park, break the ice with their bootheels, untie and unwrap the animals, and pitch them back into the water.”
Today, a large commemorative statue of the gators decorates the plaza.
My neighbor who grew up in El Paso recalls sitting on the concrete wall around the pond and watching the gators. “When you’re a kid it was pretty spectacular to see those beasts so close,” she wrote in a comment on this blog. (See Aug. 25 post, “The journey takes shape.”)
She also suggested a visit to the circular Dome Bar at the Camino Real, a historic downtown hotel formerly called Hotel Paso del Norte. Suspended over the bar by wires is a Tiffany cut-glass dome, which is 25 feet in diameter.
Sounds like a worthy place to hoist a cold one.